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Long red dress on the left, model wearing patterned dress on the right. Photo by Laziz Hamani
Photo by Laziz Hamani

Fine Art in Fabric

Art history prof Alexandra Palmer goes BIG with a ROM textile exhibition

The dress on the left is a painting come to life. The Christian Dior couture piece, currently on display at the Royal Ontario Museum, recreates in three dimensions the classic 1940s watercolours of French artist René Gruau. Designer John Galliano layered black tulle over silk, says Alexandra Palmer, a U of T art history professor and the exhibit curator, to create “this chiaroscuro effect of light and shade, like watercolour as it bleeds into the paper. It’s technically a very, very complicated piece that took over 500 hours to make.”

That’s why the dress takes pride of place in BIG, an exhibition that Palmer assembled with co-curators Sarah Fee and Anu Liivandi to showcase “beautiful things that we have a difficult time getting out on display because they’re so large. And then we expanded the idea to the concept ‘big’.” So besides the complex dress, the exhibit of 40 never-before-seen items from the ROM’s 50,000-strong world textiles collection includes giant two- by four-metre tapestries, painstakingly embroidered West African royal trousers and a Vivienne Tam silk dress that uses new digital printing technology (right).

“Textiles are very, very sensitive towards light and handling, so no touching,” says Palmer regretfully. “It’s what people want to do, but this is window shopping only!”

BIG is at the ROM until November 2013.

See more items from the BIG Exhibition, with explanations from curator Alexandra Palmer


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